Draconian Laws Threaten Press Freedom in Pakistan

Monday, January 23, 2017
1 reactions


By Syed Naeem Uddin

Over the past three decades, the organs of power in Pakistan have gradually and systematically strengthened a tyrannical grip over freedom of expression. A combination of politically-motivated violence and retaliation against journalists, Orwellian cybercrime legislation, repressive cultural conservativism, and blasphemy laws make the country one of the worst in the world for the free expression of ideas, dissent, and criticism.

Pakistan currently ranks among the 10 worst countries for internet freedom and is eighth on the list of 10 worst countries for journalists, according to the Freedom House and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), respectively. The responsibility for this state of affairs rests will all of Pakistan's Major political parties. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI), have each failed to defend the democratic rights of Pakistan's people, and share responsibility for these abysmal rankings.

All of these parties have armed wings with a history of violence towards members of the press. In April of 2016, Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) workers physically assaulted a TV cameraman. In October, PTI workers attacked a Geo News DSNG van in Swabi. In 2014, PTI also attacked and ransacked the property of the state owned Pakistan Television PTV. PTI chief Imran Khan’s has even openly trumpeted these attacks as a selling point for his party.

Additionally, in August of 2016, the Muttahida Qumi Movement (MQM) attacked the office of ARY News and SAMAA's DSNG van, leaving one cameraman injured. All the attackers from the PTI and MQM have been granted impunity.

Journalists and media persons killed/ injured in 2015 in Pakistan:





Arshad Ali Jafr

Aftab Alam

Hassan Mateen

Anees Chuhan


Zafarullah Jatak


Khyber – Pakhtunkwa (KP)

Dr Muhammad Zaman Mehsud

Hafeez Ur Rehman

Azam Shinwari



Three employees of TV channel Dunya News were injured in grenade attack

Journalists and whistleblowers in Pakistan face intimidation and physical harm from politicians, religious radicals, law enforcement agencies (LEAs), political parties, and sectarian groups. On many occasions, torture from LEAs, financial penalties, and immense social pressure combine to effectively strip from journalists the ability to meaningfully exercise their legal press freedom rights. Though the Press Council of Pakistan (PCP) guarantees such rights to all the journalists in the country, they have never been honored in practice.

The case of journalist Cyril Almeida offers an illustrative example. Almeida came under fire in October 2016 for his story about a meeting between the elected government and the powerful military. The civilian-led interior ministry immediately put Almeida on the notorious Exit Control List (ECL), barring him from leaving Pakistan, and threatened him with worse consequences.

Cyber Crime Bill
The recently introduced Cyber Crime Bill or Prevention of Electronic Crimes bill (PECB) has granted nearly unlimited powers to the government and LEAs to inflict harsher punishments.

The PECB makes citizens’ data accessible to LEAs, and includes no clause for data protection. This bill has been widely opposed and criticized by senators, human rights activists, and civil society members for criminalizing much of the research necessary for journalists, whistle-blowers, academics, and intellectuals to do their jobs. In addition to its intentionally vague language, it also contains loopholes for LEAs to use the law against citizens. Its clauses related to cyberterrorism are dangerously ambiguous, giving LEAs the wide latitude to use to their powers to block or delete online material.

One of the most concerning aspects of this instrument of political manipulation is the bill’s lack of specific limitation on the retention of data.

While commenting on the bill, Senator Farhatullah Babar said, “it was meaningless to pass a cybercrime bill without first enacting a data protection act. Around the world, comprehensive laws are put in place before enacting cybercrime legislation.” But the bill itself lacks safeguards for individuals’ data.

PECB arms the government with the sweeping powers of censorship, surveillance, and codified rights violations. David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, wrote that section 29 of PECB “facilitates state surveillance that potentially undermines the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

In October, the province of Sindh leveled a brutal assault on privacy with a clause in the National Authority for Counter-Terrorism (Nacta), which legalizes LEAs’ access to citizens’ internet, telephone, social media, WhatsApp, and financial transactions.

Empowering LEAs with such powers in a country where, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), 3682 people were killed in 2015 during 2015 encounters with LEAs and where torture remains the prime tool of coercive confessions, puts not only journalists and whistleblowers, but all segments of society at great risk.

In October 2016, the government granted extensive powers to Absar Aslam, chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), to revoke licences and shut down electronic and print media without prior warning. Such decisions are at the whim of the perceptions and discretion of the politically appointed individuals heading such departments. There are a number of examples of such powers being abused in the recent past.

The Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) chairman Mobashir Hassan banned the film Maalik in early 2016 without any investigation or inquiry. The ban was later lifted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but cinemas remained reluctant to play the film, fearing subsequent backlash.

In May 2015, PEMRA banned the TV series “Udaari.” The series was funded by an NGO and sought to expose the taboo topic of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is enormously underreported in Pakistan, and is often swept under the rug by the families. In the rural areas especially widespread abuse is committed in Maderssahs (seminaries), and no one dares to utter a word against it. This is a dreadful tragedy that, if revealed, often leads male family members to target the victimised women for so-called ‘honor killings’.

The movie Slackistan, depicting the rising western-inspired youths in Pakistan, was never allowed to air due to its scenes that showed alcohol consumption, and mocked the Taliban.

In May, PEMRA banned all TV advertising for contraceptives, even though Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous nation where almost half of the children suffer from malnutrition, and 38.8% of the population live in poverty.

In June, PEMRA banned host-actor Hamza Ali Abbasi of Aaj TV and scholars Kokab Noorani and Shabbir Abu Talib of TV One for criticising the constitution, which declares Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority.

As a result of similar actions, hundreds of journalists, whistleblowers, and small media houses engage in self-censorship when covering religion, blasphemy, separatist movements, women, and LGBTQ rights.

According to a report published by the US government advisory panel in 2014, “Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world; listing 14 people on death row and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam.”

The Constitution of Pakistan, the Pakistan Penal Code, and the Federal Shariat Court regulate blasphemy, which carries the death penalty or life imprisonment and which serves as the motivational factor behind many so-called honor killings. These laws are discriminatory and in overt violation of religious freedom, freedom of expression and other human rights, often providing fodder for mob lynching. At least 62 men and women have been killed on mere suspicion of blasphemy between 1987 and 2015, and an estimated 1,472 people have been accused under the blasphemy laws.

In 2014, a blasphemy case was registered against pop singer-turned-preacher, Junaid Jamshed, who publicly offered his apology and clarified that his remarks were misinterpreted. In March, he was roughed up at the Islamabad Airport.

Last June, one of the most-liked qawwals (religious folk singers), Amjad Sabri, was assassinated in broad daylight on a crowded street in Karachi. Later, the suspects confessed that the murder was related to the blasphemous comments made on a TV channel along with an activist Khurram Zaki. Khurram had also been murdered in May (a month earlier) alongside journalist Rao Khalid. Amjad was blamed by a rival TV host for committing blasphemy, and according to some insiders, this may have sparked hatred against him that ended in his murder.

In April 2015, an assistant professor of the University of Karachi, Dr Syed Wahidur Rahman, was shot dead in Karachi. He was expected to participate in the panel discussion, “Unsilencing Balochistan Take 3,” an issue for which another internationally known activist, director Sabeen Mahmud, was assassinated. 

In the year prior, Prof Dr Muhammad Shakeel Auj, dean of the faculty of Islamic Studies at Karachi University, and Prof Syed Sibte Jafar were killed, and Debra Lobo, the vice-principal of the Jinnah Medical and Dental College's student affairs wing, was badly wounded in a gun attack. They were all targeted for exercising their rights to freedom of speech.

Blasphemy laws are clearly a licence to kill in Pakistan. Among hundreds of citizens, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and a powerful governor of Punjab – Pakistan, Salman Taseer, were assassinated in January 2011, just for saying that such laws would be reconsidered.  

Among many brutal murders and mob killings related to the blasphemy laws, the mob lynching of a young Christian couple Shama and Shahzad was one of the grisliest. The two were accused of desecrating a Quran, and local mosques issued a call to gather at the brick kiln where the couple worked as bonded labourers. They were torn from their home by the assembled mob, dragged behind a tractor on a dirt road, thrown into a brick kiln and burned to death.

Disastrously, while the climate grows more dangerous for journalists, whistleblowers, reformers, intellects and academics, the West—including Canada—is fast closing the borders for those who seek refuge, who risk theirs and their family’s lives for a better world by fighting bullets with the pen. These people, branded as Kafir (infidel) and rebels, face death and prison at home or denial of entry in the countries they try to take refuge in. The rise of far-right groups and parties in Europe, widespread xenophobia, and recent spike in hate crimes suffocate those who speak up against injustice, tyranny, and human wrongs.

The moderators and activists are faced with the dilemma of misinterpretation and deliberate misrepresentation. Speaking up for minorities or working for religious harmony had gotten brave people killed, people like Amjad Sabri, Hamza Ali Abbasi, Kokab Noorani, Shabbir Abu Talib, Salmaan Taseer and Pervaiz Bhatti.

The future of freedom of thought and freedom of expression in Pakistan depends upon the courage of people like them, people like Zeenat Shahzadi, who stand in defence of universal values against the forces of reaction, superstition, bigotry, and political expediency. They need, and deserve, our support and solidarity. 

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  • samir sardana
    commented 2021-06-06 08:32:27 -0400
    The scene in Pakistan can be compared with the debauched Indian Media

    Media Ethics ? In India ?

    Media in Hindoosthan – Big Picture – North India

    This is not the USA or EU, wherein intellectuals,ideologues,idealists and philosophers,own,manage and edit newspapers.In India or Hindoosthan,the media is owned by rapacious banias,brokers and pimps,fronting for politicians and tycoons, blackmailers ,extortionists, murderers and rapists.

    In the North of India,the entire media is owned by banias,and financed by banias,politicians and political parties. It is either owned by the banias,or the bania is a front man,for the mafia or the politicians and political parties. These banias are English illiterate,and a race of liars,thieves and cheats – a race of pure Indians,id.est., they are not Rig Vedic invaders.They have atypical Indian features,and are easily identifiable.

    Media in Hindoosthan – Big Picture – South India

    In the South of Hindooland,the media is mainly owned by Political parties – as the media,is a working capital guzzler,and the media needs cash (not bank loans),to operate.With the parties in power,the government ad blitz,is done through these outlets,and the money is also bled out,to generate cash,for the politicians.As time passes,some of these media entities,are listed on stock exchanges

    The real owner of the Media and the Media Busines Model

    In essence,the actual and quasi owners of the media,are the banias and the politicians – as the revenue model, of the news,is based on advertisements – which are sourced from corporates,owned and managed by banias,or managed by brahmin/bania and kayastha etc..Corporate adverts,are based on TRPs – but the Govtt ad blitz and propoganda,is based on discretion of politicians,and their pimps,in the media.

    There are several loss making media outlets,in the pathetos of Hindoosthan – for decades – but they do not fold their business. Foolish people ask Y ? Several Editors and Owners,of Large media houses,and loss making media outlets – act as pimps,of the politicians.They provide access to politicians and baboos for large contracts,loans,acquisitions and licences.That is the REAL business model,and then,there is the “conversion” operation – wherein,the Politicians get paid in cash,for the Govt ad blitz done,via the media entity.The conversion is more profitable,for loss making media entities,for obvious reasons.

    The rate for rotating the cash of the politicians,is half the SBI PLR (Medium term PLR).Banks do not lend to media outlets – and so,the working capital of these outlets,is funded by the cash of the politicians and banias.

    Hence,the real owner of the media,is the politician and the bania financier.The Bania CEO, is meant to manage cash flow and has no intellectual imputs.It is thus,obvious, that the media has to peddle the line and ideology,of the politicians,and the ruling dispensation.

    Media Antics and Tactics

    To ring fence themselves,the Indian Media has made defamation laws – which suit their needs,and the media house is owned by a myriad maze of Trusts,NGOs,Firms,Partnerships and Corporates – which makes criminal liability,impossible.The self regulatory bodies of the Indian media,are all bogus,and are meant to dissuade the plaintiffs.The media vermin,can destroy any politician,and also, any Judge – and so,no Judge has ever sent an Editor,or Onwer of a media outlet,to jail.The Dubious Hindoo nation,has no concept of “punitive damages”,on anybody.

    Besides,the media is pampered with nil duty on newspaper imports,EPCG schemes for newsprint makers and other sops for the media.In addition, they get land and property concessions at prime locales,but at sub prime rates.To keep the moolah flowing,these vermin,have award ceremonies of dubious credibility,to pamper the egos of politicians and tycoons,and banias – to keep the cash flowing – an exercise,in cheap antics and perfidy,wherein the media and the awardees,are complimenting each other,with an audience of morons,waxing eloquent on the merits of Indian Democracy !

    Reductio Asurdum – Expecting idealism and ethics

    If the media is owned by banias and politicians – then Y will the media focus,on the following :

    Corruption – as it is done by banias and politicians,and the politicians,are the sponsors of the state adverts
    Bank NPA and Frauds – as it is done and sanctioned,by banias and politicians,and the banias are the sponsors of the adverts
    Farmers suicides – as no bania dies and banias and politicians gain,by farm overproduction
    Farm moneylenders – as all the financiers and arhatiyas,are banias
    SME doom – as the money is stolen by banias,and politicians
    Manufacturing doom – as that will hurt the oliticians,and the corporate sponsors
    Military doom – as that will hurt the politicians,and the hindoo ego
    Evils of the Hindoo faith – as that will hurt a billion hindoos and politicians,and the corporate sponsors
    Dalit and Lower castes – as that will hurt a billion hindoos and politicians,and the corporate sponsors
    Hunger,poverty,rape and degradation – as that will hurt a billion hindoos,and the corporate sponsors

    The Indian Media are the lapdogs of NARENDRA MODI.dindooohindoo